"Vice is basically the love of failure."
-- From The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek
"You know, you really shouldn't smoke. It's bad for you."
I smoked for twenty years and I'd guess for every three cigarettes, someone felt the need to point this blatantly obvious fact out to me. To this day, every once in awhile, I take what I call a "non-smoker's vacation" and allow myself to grab a pack and enjoy the sensation of doing something bad for me. I suppose I could drink to excess but I generally am not enamored of being so completely out of control and the squares leave me a bit smelly but with all my faculties intact.
In Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, there is the story of Big Tobacco trying to figure out what made smoking "cool." They identified the type of kid who starts smoking in high school to find out what about smoking was attractive to this kid and why he started up on the cancer sticks in the first place. This kid was generally anti-authoritarian, independent-thinking, sexually promiscuous, and on the cutting edge of popular culture. The discovery that Big Tobacco made was that smoking wasn't cool; smokers were cool.
With that model in mind, let's take a look at art and the artist. Is art "cool"? The kid that becomes an artist in high school wears unusual clothing, intentionally bucks the systematic conformism that is taught in American High Schools, marches to the beat of the wack-ass drum in his head. He paints instead of goes out for football; she writes gothic death poetry instead of trying out for the cheerleading squad. The kid that aspires to become an artist is anti-authoritarian and independent-thinking. Art isn't cool; artists are.
So where did that kid go?
We idolize that kid in films and books. Even something as artistically suspect as the movie Footloose espouses the rebel artist willing to break the rules so that skinny kid can do the Robot in a barn. Our mythic heroes are rule breakers and miscreants - one of the most popular television dramas ever created is about New Jersey criminals and one of the most popular movie trilogies of all time is populated with pirates. Try and name one "cool" character in history who was conformist and law abiding. Even Jesus Christ was a complete fringe rebel fighting the conformist dogma of the day, so don't hand me some right wing conservative nonsense about being a good, obedient Christian.
Where did that kid with all the self-respect, confidence and independence go?
The common picture is that he grew up and out of his child-like ways. That today's liberal progressive anti-government long hair just needs to get a job, make some money, have some kids and he will naturally become conservative in his thinking. This equates conformism and materialism with adulthood and wisdom but does not bear out empirically. Mahatma Gandhi was a rule-breaker; Churchill was a rebel; John Brown might have been insane but he was right.
In the improvisational theater world, Del Close is idolized but his progressive ideas and artistic challenges are, for the most part, used to "get ahead in the industry" and become a star. America's Got Talent will never pave the way for another Bob Dylan. Jack Kerouac wasn't a best seller until he was dead.
Waiting for Godot was under threat of being banned in it's English-language premiere because the Lord Chamberlain claimed the word "erection" was indecent - Beckett refused to change it and the play went on. Today, theater artists are so timid that the threat of being shut down because of smoking in a theater in a play that calls for smoking is instantly compromised and The Vagina Monologues is changed to The Hoo Haa Monologues without batting an eye.
Where did that badass, to hell with the consequences kid disappear to? Where did that Artist disappear to? Embracing the path of the Artist is to fully immerse oneself in a love of failure. The Artist can never beat the system and, like Terry Gilliam, can only lose beautifully. I seek out these Gorgeous Failures and laud them but they are increasingly difficult to find. The ones who look like that kid are generally just lazy and uninspired but put on the pose - they wear the clothes but don't put in the work. The ones who put in the work are so often focused on recognition or compensation that the criminal spirit of artistic risk has been bred out of them.
Why? Why is it so hard to refuse to accept this rampant mediocrity? Did we all really buy into the message that we all need to get a real job because art isn't a profession? Did we all swallow the Kool-Aid that insists you aren't professional unless you are getting health insurance? Are we satisfied with the simple-minded dreck served up on television and theaters and self help books everywhere?
Further, while there are scofflaws in abundance in the non-art world, they arent the cool ones. They are those who simply joined into the dog-eat-dogma, I gotta get mine first, I want to live like a rockstar bullshit that allows them the sociopathic capitalist drive to foreclose on families and pay McDonald's workers with debit cards that come with massive fees. The rest have absorbed the message that if we all just learn how to get ahead by watching Survivor, we, too, can conform to the tribe while backstabbing our allies because it's just a fucking game.
They are the Donald Trumps, the Pharma Boy's, the CEOs who steal our savings and get millions of dollars in severance for the crime. They are the shameless self promoters and the underhandedly vicious. They are also the minor bullies using race or sex as bludgeons against those they perceive as in their way. They are the scumbags of history. By any means necessary but only if it serves themselves.
Where are the cool outlaws? Where are the Lenny Bruces, the Frida Kahlos, the Steve McQueens, the Ma Raineys? Where are the artistic criminals?
Without the criminals, we'd still be required by Papal law to only perform morality tales from the Bible. It took cats who risked being tortured and hung to break that door down. Without the high-minded rebel, we'd still be paying taxes to England. Without the will of those willing to ignore the conformity of getting along, we'd still require blacks to use separate facilities and gays to be living in those tiny closets.
The revolution is not one big thing, but a series of individuals willing to take the heat brought down on the heads of those who will not conform and will not be silenced. The revolution is an individual one. The choice to be that rule-bending, authority-questioning artist is a personal one.
Vice is the love of failure. It is likewise the love of freedom and the rejection of the ordinary. It is the declaration that the fear of abandoning the crowd will not prevail.
Where is that kid? You can find her smoking a jay behind the bleachers because she definitely isn't 'dressed for success' and networking. He is working his day job but going home and writing songs and poetry by candlelight.
Who is the greatest artist on the planet? None of us has probably ever heard of that person because that artist creates with a love of failure and inspiration that can only be seen by the rest of us as a vice.